Coping with the shock and stress of layoff becomes the first order of business

SUDDENLY UNEMPLOYED

October 04, 1991|By Jean Marbella

"Job security" is fast becoming the oxymoron of 1991, as more than 1,700 state workers learned this week when they became the latest members of an ever-growing group in Maryland: the suddenly unemployed.

"What's happening today with losing jobs is that it's happening in places where people thought they were secure," said Harry Olson, a Reisterstown psychologist who specializes in occupational and career issues. "People get into state service, or federal service, in part because the security is good.

"So not only have these people lost their jobs, which is bad enough, but there's a tremendous feeling of betrayal on top of that," Mr. Olson said. "And that's true for companies as well; it's not just the state. As companies get leaner and meaner -- especially meaner -- that takes away the old guarantees and adds a whole new dimension of fear. It does something to our faith in our major institutions."

The cuts proposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer as a way of making up a $450 million budget deficit are just the latest in a tumultuous year for employees in both the public and private sectors in Maryland. In January, USF&G began laying off the first of an eventual total of 1,900 employees; in February, Westinghouse laid off 1,200 workers; in May, Maryland National Bank announced hundreds of layoffs of their own. And those figures don't include workers at smaller companies -- such as the 650 working at Homewood Hospital Center-South when it closed in May -- or the countless positions in the government and private industry that simply remained unfilled in these cost-cutting times.

Behind these overwhelming numbers, of course, are people. People with wives who just learned they're pregnant. People with seven children. People with mortgages, kids' college tuitions and all those other money-eating monsters that have to be fed to be kept at bay.

And people suddenly under some of the greatest stress they'll ever experience in their lives.

"It's second only to losing a spouse or losing a child," Mr. Olson said.

"The people directly affected [by the job terminations] have been taken off flight status," said Maj. Charles Hutchins, commander of the state police's aviation division, where 22 medical evacuation pilots, crew and support staffers are out of work come Nov. 1. "It's a high-stress job as it is."

He and others in the state said the shock of Monday's announcement has yet to subside.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I ever anticipate this," said Sue Slagle, 43, whose job as supervisor of education at Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup was eliminated. "It sounds funny to say this now, but this was considered a doggone secure job. And even if there were to be layoffs, with my 18 years, I thought I was safe."

The entire state prison education program -- about 160 staffers who work with about 4,500 inmates a year -- was wiped out, so if Ms. Slagle were to stay in her field, she would have to move out of Maryland. But with a house and a 12-year-old son, moving is not her first preference.

'We both cried'

Ms. Slagle, a single mother and a former Peace Corps worker, said breaking the news to her son was a tearful occasion. "He cried, we both cried. It's scary to him," she said. "We have a turtle collection and some of them got out, and he said, 'Nothing is going right. My mother lost her job, and I lost my turtles.' "

Protecting their families from the financial and emotional stresses of unemployment is primary in the minds of many of the just-terminated state employees.

"I didn't tell them yet," Leonard Finkelstein, 49, said of his seven -- children, most of whom are away in college or religious school. "I'm their sole breadwinner. My wife is devastated. Whatever money I've made went to pay for my children's education. I don't have any money in the bank. I can't lose even one paycheck."

For Mr. Finkelstein, who teaches the mentally disabled at Patuxent Institution, this is the second time in his 18-year state career that he's been laid off. "I was sure it would never happen again. That's why I moved to corrections," said Mr. Finkelstein, who previously had been laid off as a teacher with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "They never cut corrections."

More than a paycheck

Like other prison teachers who were terminated, Mr. Finkelstein said his job was more than a paycheck.

"I've taught in private schools, I've taught in many other schools, and I've never seen the positive results that I see here," he said. "You get an inmate who is at the second grade level and, by the end of the year, they can be at the eighth or the ninth grade level. And you see how the inmates really appreciate having these programs."

John Linton, 43, director of the prison schools and libraries, said his concerns are not financial, initially at least, since his wife works and they live a "fairly conservative" lifestyle. Rather, he said, he needs to figure out who he is if he isn't involved in prison education.

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